Synopsis: Baz Luhrmann’s take on Elvis Presley and his manager, “Colonel ” Tom Parker.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is about Baz, Col. Parker and Elvis; in that order. Baz’ production is just as splashy and bedazzled as you’d expect. Just like Baz’ The Great Gatsby, he makes a mockery of Great American Stories with his tropical island home of Australia stand-in for America. But Baz has employed a fair number of American actors in the production including Austin Butler as Elvis and national treasure Tom Hanks as greedy manager Col. Tom Parker.
We all held our breath when we learned that Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson had contracted COVID Down Under. It was not reassuring when their embarrassing nitwit of a son, Chet made a video flaunting his usual f**kboy vibe in which he informed well-wishers that his parents “weren’t tripping.”
Production shut down due to the pandemic and resumed months later. Filming resumed with Hanks again clad in prosthetic jowls, nose and gut to play Elvis’ manager. The film takes an interesting point of view, that of Col. Tom Parker. Hanks’ character gets equal time with Elvis. He says he knows people may see him as a villain, but he’s not. He makes the declaration as a sickly old man, mincing his way through Vegas slot machines, clad in a hospital gown and toting an IV pole behind him.
Hanks also makes misuse of a Dutch accent with a bit of Southern USA thrown in. The whole non-high concept is that the Colonel sees himself as a carnival huckster, or snow man. He intones that All showmen are snowmen. Tell that to Frosty, you damnable liar!
Cut back to the 1940’s when Child Elvis was growing up poor in the Deep South. Lil Elvis couldn’t even afford a Coke, so, instead, he turned to slipping into Black Revival tents where he would get carried away by the singing and the spirit. This leads to proto-versions of his later trademark gyrations. He also crowd-surfed. According to Baz, anyway.
We get little teases of Elvis music when scenes are bridged with a soft-focus and muffled, slowed-down Elvis songs. Baz also force feeds us current artists such as Doja Cat, to give a feel for how cutting edge his music was in the 1950’s. I guess.
We also get to see the future King of Rock and Roll as a teen musician/singer in Memphis, Tennesee. By this time, Elvis has his trademark dyed-jet black hair and loose rockabilly suits. He’s an artist up to something new, but locals don’t appreciate him. Or straight white guys, anyway. They hurl insults at him as he scurries down the street with his guitar, minding his own business. Horrible invectives are launched at him like: Hey, squirrel! and Hey, Sideburns!
Thankfully he will be on to bigger and better things when he starts recording for Sun Records. And then, he meets Col Tom Parker, the conman, uh, excuse me, snowman. Parker (né Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands) sees the crowds on the local fair circuits go crazy for Elvis’ stage moves. As teen girls scream for the young entertainer, the Colonel muses that Elvis “was a taste of forbidden fruit.” Probably not an apple like in the Bible though, more like the bananas that would be sliced for Elvis’ favorite sandwich: Peanut butter, banana and bacon with greased up bread and all fried up real good in a skillet.
There is a dumb sequence in the movie wherein Colonel Parker ushers Elvis around a carnival at night, whispering to him that he, Elvis, is lost. Then he points out the “creatures of the carnival.” Oh, like the “snowman” plumped up with rubbery flesh who is about to take Elvis for a ride with a contract that gives him fifty percent of his earnings in perpetuity? Quick, Elvis! Get away from that Polar Mephistopheles!
Elvis begins churning out hits like “Heartbreak Hotel and “All Shook Up.” He even breaks into movies featuring his songs: “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.” The crowds go wild, but censors wring their hands over Elvis’ pelvis swerving around onstage during his concerts. Elvis complains to his friend, famous Blues musician B.B. King, about being held back. After one Memphis concert, indecency charges are a possibility so the grotesque Colonel issues an edict to Elvis: It’s the Army or jail.
Uncle Sam gets Elvis and before you can say “Don’t Be Cruel,” his pompadour is shaved off and he’s posted in Germany. The next year, 1959, 24-year-old Elvis began dating a student living with her American family, 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. Uhh, yup! You don’t need a 2022 lens to see that, yes, this was inappropriate through a 1959 lens as well. But Baz doesn’t address this and cleverly casts adult actress Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla. It’s not long before her parents allow her to go to Elvis’ garish manse, at his compound, Graceland, located in Memphis, Tennessee.
All sorts of drama await Elvis, including pill-popping, gun play and his manager writing out contracts on napkins and tablecloths in Vegas. Ultimately, Elvis could’ve used a good lawyer and rehab.
And last, but not least, how is newbie Austin Butler as Elvis? In a word: excellent. Butler’s talent and relative lack of fame bring us an Elvis full of onstage King-making charisma and a softspoken thoughtfulness offstage. Unfortunately, Baz’ equal focus on Col. Tom Parker and how he exploited Elvis is ham-fisted and the otherwise-capable Hanks flounders as Parker.
And Baz, please stop taking American classics, dressing them up with your talented partner Catherine Martin and shooting them in Australia. Maybe it’s time for a some more silly fun with something like Moulin Rouge!2!.
P.S. Baz Luhrmann shows the debt that early rock and roll had to the Black popular music of the time. You’ll have to look elsewhere for how white Country music and Gospel influenced Elvis’ take on the singles he recorded. During any deep dives on the internet, please be advised to avoid any footage of John Stamos as the Elvis-loving Uncle Jesse on the 1980’s sitcom Full House unless you want to feel nauseated.